Republicans and Negative Income Tax (2011 Mar)

by Barry A. Liebling

You can appreciate and endorse the essential importance of respecting every person’s natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Alternatively, you might be an advocate of the welfare state. But you can’t have it both ways.

The essence of the welfare state is that the government is the chief decider on what constitutes the good for society and how it shall be achieved. The state collects taxes which it then uses to fund social programs – that is, programs designed by “government experts” that people would not pay for voluntarily in the absence of coercion. The welfare state redistributes money from productive individuals to groups of people who are deemed worthy – the “poor and disadvantaged,” members of favored special interest groups, and, of course, government employees who run the programs.

In a society that values individualism the role of government is strictly limited to preserving each person’s natural rights. That means the government is supposed to protect citizens from foreign enemies (this justifies the military) and assure that domestically the use of force and fraud are prohibited (this is the rationale for police and courts). Social programs are acceptable providing they do not violate anyone’s natural rights and they are paid for and administered privately.

The Democratic party has consistently and unabashedly been a proponent of the welfare state. Its platforms and policies call for an activist government with ever-expanding lists of agencies, policies, budgets, taxes, and regulations. The central idea is that if anything is worth doing the government should either take on the task itself or supervise and direct any private entities that are involved.

The Republican party sends out a muddled message. It boasts that it is a champion of personal responsibility, small government, and is not sympathetic to the idea of the welfare state. At the same time it has a track record of being the light version of the Democratic party – supporting welfare state policies at a slower, more hesitant pace than the Democrats. Where the Democrats are enthusiastic for growing the welfare state, Republicans are apologetic, call themselves compassionate conservatives, and then half-heartedly but surely work for government expansion.

Observers both within and outside of the Republican party have recognized its consistency problem for a long time. The quarrel between Republicans who yearn to be authentic champions of individualism and freedom (hard liners) and those who insist it is more practical and mature to accommodate to the modern welfare state (big tent realists) continues.

How should the Republican party proceed? Guy Sorman writes in City Journal that Republicans have won races recently “mostly by running against proposals by liberals in power, rather than by suggesting a coherent alternative agenda.” He argues that the Republicans should “replace the welfare state” with a negative income tax, a policy famously promoted by the economist Milton Friedman. The idea is that cash grants would substitute for most existing welfare programs. The amount of the grants would be adjusted to encourage the recipients to seek employment and not simply depend on the government hand out.

Mr Sorman describes the negative income tax in glowing terms and asserts that its biggest advantage is “that it requires the smallest possible bureaucracy to implement.” He envisions the IRS being given the task of determining who is eligible and how much they will receive. Mr Sorman points out that the political difficulty of making the negative income tax a reality is monumental. Both welfare recipients and government bureaucrats are wedded to the existing welfare state. While these special interest groups would probably support the negative income tax as an add-on, they would fight tooth and nail to keep their favored programs intact.

Suppose, however, that some clever way could be found to bring the negative income tax (instead of most existing welfare) into being. If the Republicans sponsored it what would it say about them?

Endorsing the negative income tax would verify the charges of the harshest critics of the Republican party – Republicans are watered-down Democrats. Note that no matter how it is labeled there is no escaping the fact that the negative income tax is just a different way of managing the welfare state. It is not a principled alternative to it. The essential problem with the welfare state is not that it is expensive or inefficient (although it certainly is); it is that it violates individual rights.

The cash grants have to be paid for by someone – in this case confiscated from tax payers without their permission. Thus, the welfare state continues to feed.

The recipients of the negative income tax will be under the thumbs of welfare bureaucrats. Mr Sorman suggests that people receiving negative income tax grants would be permitted to spend the money as they see fit. However, government officials would be unable to resist their passion for micro-managing the lives of their “clients.” The cash would probably be provided via a credit card type device – similar to what has replaced food stamps. Once the program is in place it will be easy to “nudge” recipients into spending the money “properly.” For example, the cards could be programmed to be inoperable at gambling casinos, liquor stores, fast food restaurants, or any establishment that is out of favor with politicians in power. Conversely, the smart payment devices could give the “client” discounts at establishments that are nurtured by the state – think of green companies, firms that are unionized, and businesses partially owned by the government.

The Republican party may or may not prevail if it takes the hard line, refuses to compromise, and insists on paring back the welfare state. If it pushes for the negative income tax – a sleeker, more efficient welfare program – its prospects are dim.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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